TL;DR – Luke Cage starts the season with a slow build, but the tension it creates is amazing, and more importantly it hooks you in for the long run.
Score – 4 out of 5 Stars
Well off the back of both a movie series that keeps going from strength to strength (Team Cap all the way) and some groundbreaking TV adaptions (like who knew that Daredevil could be likeable) Marvel is simply killing it at the moment. Indeed the Netflix experiment itself is still growing exponentially, it’s a service that can show everything from Chef’s Table to Stranger Things and all in between. Within all this, we get the next in the Marvel/Netflix joint project Luke Cage (after Daredevil and Jessica Jones), and like its predecessors, Luke Cage is provocative, but also brilliantly made. For this review we are going to look at the first three episodes ‘Moment of Truth’, ‘Code of the Streets’ & ‘Who’s Gonna Take the Weight’ because they clearly set the scene and the tone for the rest of the season. Now we are going to be talking about these episodes in detail, so to be clear spoilers are now in effect.
We first met Luke Cage (Mike Colter) in last year’s Jessica Jones, he was a complicated man trying to deal with his wife’s death, and well Jessica Jones didn’t really help him much. Here in his stand alone series, it’s been some time since the end of Jessica Jones and Luke is hiding out working multiple jobs for cash to try and hide from his past. While this is not a rewarding life, it was a way for him to live under the radar and out of the eyes of the authorities, well until some stupid kids do something stupid. Luke was working two jobs, as a floor sweeper of Pop’s (Frankie Faison) barber shop, a Harlem institution and respected neutral territory, and as a dishwasher at Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes’ (Mahershala Ali) club. Mr Stokes is a ‘self-made’ man and is working with his cousin Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard) to gain Power, Respect, Money and control over Harlem. Now, of course, it should come to no illusion that he is doing this by less than legal means.
Luke Cage starts us off with what must be some of the most incompetent criminals on TV. So when you are working for a mob boss, you know what is a great course of action, yep, you rob him whilst they are doing a deal with a rival gang, and then of course since you are amateurs, you end up killing everyone, but not before they phone it in and tell everyone who is robbing them, and then, even though you have got 500k that you robbed from a mob boss, you don’t flee the city, instead you go to a strip club and throw your dirty money around, and of course you get caught. This is why you should stay in school kids, so you learn not to do stupid things. So this event is the trigger for everything that happens in the first three episodes (and most likely the rest of the season) as these idiots worked at both Pop’s and Cottonmouth’s so they end up causing extensive collateral damage, as well bringing Luke into the middle of it.
The story across the first three episodes really is a slow build punctuated with moments of intense action. This works as it gives you time to absorb yourself with the locations, the central tensions, themes, and relationships, but just when you are starting to feel like it is dragging a bit, bam they hit it for a six. Part of what has made these Netflix/Marvel series as strong as they are is that each of them deals with some really important themes. Daredevil looked at what it meant to have power and if you have it how should you use it, while Jessica Jones used the character of Kilgrave to examine the theme of consent and sexual violence. Here in Luke Cage the theme, in at least the first three episodes, is that of what it means to be African American. You see it in the interplay between Cornell and Mariah, what should you be striving for, to make you community a better place, or should you be striving for Power, Respect and Money? Mariah herself is a fascinating character because she does want to see her community grow, but she is will always (so far) put family first. But also she wants to keep Harlem black and protect it from invasion using the same exclusivist language we see being used by less than charitable politicians and their views towards immigration. As well as this there a look at notions of masculinity and pride and the devastating consequences they can have. In just the first few episodes we get some of the most tragic yet powerful soliloquies I have seen on TV in a while. Pop expands on how most of the boys he mentors are too proud to ask for help so they are dooming to a life working on the streets because of their pride. As well as this Luke in the end of Ep2 who, after someone tries to degrade him with the N-word and a gun to his head, he lambasts the youth in what should be an Emmy-worthy speech. So few shows on TV really deal with these issues, but also to explore all the nuances both good and bad, the recent Cleverman is also another good example of this.
We’ve looked at the story and theme, but the question is ‘how does it all come together’, well actually it should come as no surprise that it all really works. Each episode is beautifully filmed and staged, that shot with Mahershala Ali standing in front of the iconic picture of The Notorious B.I.G. wearing the crown is stunning, in one frame it tells us everything we need to know about Cottonmouth or is that Mr Stokes. There are some beautiful sweeping shots that help give us a view of the amazing sets but also helps locate both the characters but also the power relationships between them. The action sequences are all really well filmed, full of ‘oh damn’ moments, but so far nothing quite rivals those exceptional fight sequences in Daredevil or the intensity of that final scene in Jessica Jones, but it is still early days. I do have to give a shout out to the music, it has been such a long time since I have seen a film or TV show double down on jazz as the tone for the music backing, it gives Luke Cage an almost Cowboy Bebop feel. The cast is all amazing, Mike Colter rivals anyone in the MCU in his sheer physicality, but also in his depth, for a man that is bulletproof there is a lot of pain in Luke Cage’s life and Mr Colter masterfully shows this range. The interplay between Mahershala Ali and Alfie Woodard is amazing, when you have such seasoned professional working at their best, I mean just wow. As an eternal optimist, I really do relate to Simone Missick’s Detective Misty Knight, she wants her neighbourhood to be better, she wants the police to be better, its’s just such a shame that her partner is a bit of an asshat.
In the end, Luke Cage is an exceptionally well filmed, amazingly well-acted TV show, but it is also more than that. It is a show that deals with some both important but also very complex themes, and it will both entertain you but also probably make you really uncomfortable at times. Given everything I have seen and the way episode three ended with such a bang, I will definitely be watching the rest of the season (Edit: The end of the season does not really hold up unfortunately) and I highly recommend you do too.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Directed by – Paul McGuigan (Episode 1 & Episode 2), Guillermo Navarro (Episode 3)
Written by – Cheo Hodari Coker (Episode 1 & Episode 2), Matt Owens (Episode 3)
Based on – Comics written by Archie Goodwin, George Tuska, Roy Thomas & John Romita
Created by – Cheo Hodari Coker
Staring – Mike Colter, Mahershala Ali, Simone Missick, Theo Rossi & Alfie Woodard